The Ancient Mariner is Coleridge’s masterpiece in which the story is presented in the supernatural atmosphere but it appears to be real and convincing. The Ancient Mariner is essentially a story of crime and punishment. The poem is divided into seven sections and each section describes a new stage in the development of the story. The first stanza tells us about the crime. Coleridge makes the shooting of the bird Albatross significant in two ways. First, he does not specifically mention why the Mariner kills the Albatross. The Mariner may have killed the bird in a mood of anger or it may be an act of near frivolity. Whatever be the cause it shows the essential irrationality of the crime which may be due to the perversity of will. Secondly, this is a crime against nature, against the saved relationship between the guest and the host. By killing the bird which was hailed in God’s name, the Mariner breaks the sacred code of life. In this action of the Mariner, we see the magnitude of his crime against humanity at the ordered system of the world.
In the second section, the Mariner begins to suffer the punishment for what he has done and Coleridge vividly describes the Mariner’s helpless condition in a hopeless world. The ship does not move and the sailors are tormenting by thirst while the only moving things around the Mariner are the slimy creatures on the sea and the death fire which dances at night. The immediate results of the crime are portrayed in the image of a universe dying of thirst and constantly visited by dreadful phantoms.
The third section shows how the guilty soul becomes conscious of what it has done. It suffers terrible isolation in a lonely world. The Mariner first begins to realize the consequences of his action when he sees the phantom ship which decides his doom.
“The night-near life in death was she who thicks man’s blood with old”. The night in which the Mariner’s companions die one by one symbolizes the darkness in the soul when it suddenly finds itself alone and robbed of familial ties. Mariner’s companions fall down dead one by one cursing him for his crime.
In the fourth section, the Mariner’s loneliness is described with greater intensity. The guilty soul is cut off not nearly from human interaction but from the consoling friendship of Nature. The Mariner is indeed in a precarious ‘plight’, he is alone on the ship surrounded by the dead bodies of his shipmate. Coleridge gives a vivid account of the Mariner’s helplessness and utter loneliness in the following lines,
Alone, Alone all, all alone
Alone on a wide wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My Soul is agony
This is the authentic description of a soul which is not only cut-off from familiar surrounding’s but also from the human community. The Albatross which hanks in the Mariner’s neck symbolizes his crime. Then begins the process of Mariner’s moral revival. When the Mariner quite unconsciously blesses the water snakes he begins to re-establish relations with the world of God’s creation.
In the fifth section, the process of the soul’s revival continues. The ship begins to move and the heavenly spirits wave the Mariner. The Mariner hears a heavenly music in the air and is comforted by it. Before he is fully restored he must establish relation both with Man and God and he begins to do so. When the Mariner hears the heavenly music he is on his way to attaining salvation.
In the sixth section, however, the process of revival is impeded. The Mariner is haunted by the faces of his comrades and feels that he is persuaded by some fearful power of vengeance. Though his haunting memories and fears Coleridge describes the Mariner’s remorse and this sense of remorse brings repentance in the mind of Mariner. This section closes with the vision of divine spirits ready to greet the Mariner. The forgiveness of God is extended to the most hearted sinner if they ready to receive it.
In the seventh section, the Mariner’s suffering comes to end and he is restored to the place among the living man. Although the Mariner achieves his salvation, the punishment of life in death is still at work. Since the Mariner has committed a hideous crime he will never be the same man again. There is a need for confession and by forcing others to listen to his story the Mariner can regain some human affection which his crime has taken away from him.
The Ancient Mariner is a story of crime, punishment, and redemption of a guilty soul. Coleridge’s presentation of the theme of guilt and redemption in a musical language and in supernatural sitting gives a depth of meaning and a new significance to the poem. This is not merely a fairy tale; it is brought close to life with its fundamental issues of life and the moral problems for the whole humanity.